Canada’s 2015 federal election brought the Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau to power. The strong re-emergence of the Liberal Party was made possible by a nation-wide appetite for major policy changes, after nine consecutive years of Conservative rule.
Thanks to this prevailing mood, the Liberals were able to attract a substantial portion of “progressive” votes away from the more left of center New Democratic Party, which held the second-largest number of parliamentary seats from 2011-2015. Trudeau’s commanding campaign performance succeeded in portraying his party as the only viable progressive option to the ruling Conservatives, promising higher deficit spending to revitalize a sluggish economy, shifting the tax burden onto the wealthiest citizens, generating greater investment in Canadian youth, proposing an environmentally-friendly economic path forward, and insisting on a renewed respect for human rights in domestic Canadian affairs. Indeed, a key foundation of Trudeau’s human rights pledges was a commitment to Indigenous rights (First Nations, Inuit, and Métis). Trudeau promised that he would address the Canadian economic, social, and political legacy of settler-colonialism, and work for a “renewed, nation-to-nation relationship” with Indigenous communities.
In his (almost) three years as prime minister, Trudeau has been thoroughly criticized for failing to realize any substantial results where Indigenous peoples are concerned. Across Canada, Indigenous communities continue to suffer from soaring incarceration rates, severe gaps in on-reserve services, increased occurrence of suicides, poor housing conditions, and limited household access to clean water, among other pressing issues.
The Liberals argue that rectifying centuries of government neglect and abuse takes time. Instead, they insist critics should focus on the increases in federal funding to address First Nations issues, as well as the sheer volume of legislation and policy that has been passed, introduced, or prepared since 2015. Indeed, according to Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak of the Yellowhead Institute, a recently established First Nation-led research center at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario:
…the Trudeau government is actually pressing ahead with a dizzying amount of legislation and policy affecting Indigenous peoples. In fact, when you consider three pieces of legislation already passed and 13 pieces of legislation introduced or proposed (including private members’ bills), over the span of a four-year period, this Parliament could be the most active since Confederation.
As noted in the Globe and Mail, there have certainly been “positive developments in the federal government’s recent record,” such as improved water infrastructure on indigenous reservations, as well as a number of other historic initiatives that are currently in motion. But a recent report prepared by the Yellowhead Institute warns that the Liberal framework for decolonization ultimately fails to address fundamental structural issues, such as land restitution, resource redistribution, and treaty obligations. The authors conclude that the federal government is uninterested in First Nations self-determination, but rather prefers a “modified version of the status quo,” where Indigenous governing bodies are transformed into administrative entities, with little power beyond service provision.
While the federal government has invested billions in its push to “reconcile” with Indigenous communities, it appears that success is being measured solely by the price tag. In May 2018, Michael Ferguson, the Auditor-General of Canada, tabled his Office’s spring audit reports, which called the federal government’s inability to improve services, administer programs, close socio-economic gaps, and advance living conditions in Indigenous communities, an “incomprehensible failure.” According to the report, federal departments and bureaucrats responsible for Indigenous affairs have failed to work with local institutions to ensure the success of Liberal on-reserve programs and initiatives, whether in health, education, or employment training. What is more, federal bodies have been working with inaccurate or incomplete data dealing with Indigenous education, health, and income on-reserve. This has resulted in massive institutional inefficiency, and the need for a “fundamental rethink” of how social services are measured and provided throughout the country.
While billions have been poured into a dizzying slew of federal programs and initiatives, Indigenous communities in Canada have not seen drastically improved outcomes since the Trudeau “reconciliation” government took power in 2015. Although politicians and bureaucrats claim that substantive results will come in time, federal institutions appear unable to measure, let alone address, the political and socio-economic issues impacting Indigenous communities.